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Be Aware

Excerpts from Kutzo Shel Yud,
The Point of a Yud.

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan
The Jewish Observer
September 1975

Reprinted with permission from the editor of The Jewish Observer.

Rabbi Kaplan's Zt"l article contains some very important points that are still applicable almost 30 years later. I felt it would be most worthwhile to share them with the reader. I have made a few minor changes and additions for the sake of clarity. They are in bold text. (Y.A.)

My friend Yechiel was almost in tears. We had just returned from the sofer where his mezuzahs were checked for the first time since his marriage, some three years earlier. Almost all of his mezuzahs were posul, unfit for use. He was sure that he had acquired good ones. He had carefully wrapped them before inserting them in the cases and they had not been subject to any moisture. Could they have become posul? Worst of all, he had been living for over three years, the all-important first years of his marriage, without kosher mezuzahs on his doors.
He was also in a quandary. The person from whom he had bought these mezuzahs had a reputation as a pious individual and an honest dealer. If he could not be trusted, then who could? If he went out now and bought new mezuzahs, how could he be certain that they would be good?

We had been discussing the obligation to check mezuzahs twice every seven years. Yechiel was so confident that nothing could have happened to the parchments of his mezuzahs that I challenged him. I took the parchments from the cases and gave them a cursory examination. I had once studied the laws of safrus, sacred script, but never had practical experience. While there was no obvious damage on the mezuzahs, the writing was not neat- apparently written in a hurry. Still my untrained eye could not find any obvious p'sul. At the bottom of each scroll was impressed with the seal of a well known rabbinical body, attesting to the kashrus of the mezuzah.

So we took the parchments to a professional sofer, who is respected as an expert. He glanced at the parchments: The script was far from perfect but this did not automatically render the mezuzahs posul. He recognized the source of the script, however, and commented that many such mezuzahs have been found to be unfit. This required a careful examination, ten to fifteen minutes per mezuzah….

He went through a number of mezuzahs and most had at least one fatal error, usually uncorrectable. Two of them were questionable and were referred to a posek, halachic authority, for a decision.

Although many (some) poskim do pass judgement on a script of doubtful kashrus, very few will actually examine a parchment- even for themselves. Examination requires a highly trained and skilled eye and if one does not have the experience he can miss important errors even if he knows the laws. Like proofreading a manuscript, there are many who know all the rules but only a few who are expert proofreaders, finding all the mistakes….

I was deeply disturbed by the seal of approval on all these mezuzahs, attesting to examination by a representative of a prominent Israeli, rabbinical body. The sofer told me that he had seen the examination process: Most mezuzahs were approved after a cursory glance or at best a rapid reading. It is an assembly line production and a careful reading is all but impossible.
(Please note that similar mezuzahs sealed and stamped with a "seal of approval" or an impressive looking seal are still sold today, 30 years later, by corrupt dealers. Many stores and individuals are easily fooled by this impressive packaging and pious looking suppliers. The fact is upon sight of such a mezuzah one can assume it is not kosher!)

"But its like putting a hechsher, seal of approval, on treifa, unkosher, meat," I protested. "These parchments are clearly and unambiguously unfit!" He replied that most rabbis rely completely on the sofrim who do the writing. Before receiving semicha, ordination, every rabbi must be thoroughly knowledgeable in the laws of kashrus of foods but not in regards to the finer points of tefillin and mezuzahs. Only a sofer thoroughly familiar with the vast literature on the subject (and apprenticeship under a posek) is unequivocally qualified to proofread sacred parchments.

I pressed the point further: "How are these parchments certified? Doesn't anyone complain?"
The sofer replied, "A number of people did inquire. After persistent challenging an acquaintance of mine was told that certification only guarantees that the parchments are not missing letters."

This in essence was an admission that all other laws regarding the precise shape of letters was being ignored. An entire body of halachah, Jewish law, was treated as if it did not exist….
The sofer stressed that even the few mezuzahs that he found to be kosher, were only kosher bide'eved, ex post facto, if one had already bought them and can obtain no others (due to financial constraints or lack of availability) he may rely on them….Besides the script on these mezuzahs was obviously sloppy and the law requires that the letters be written as perfectly as possible.
The sloppy script and miswritten letters of cheaper parchments imply other problems besides the obvious ones. One must suspect that the sofer who wrote the parchments was not overzealous with regards to other points that cannot be checked later. For example, before beginning to write the sofer must verbally state that he is doing so for the sake of tefillin or mezuzahs. If he omits this, the parchments are posul beyond rectification. Similarly, each time the sofer writes the Tetragrammaton ( or any one of the ten unerasable names of Hashem) he must verbalize the fact that he is writing "for the sake of the holiness of the Name". In these areas it depends totally on the reputation of the sofer. If he is careless in his script, how careful is he in these other points?….

Devout Jews always have sought the best tefillin and mezuzahs possible. People once travelled all over Europe, seeking out scribes who put loving care into each letter they wrote. Many sofrim were tzaddikim of wide repute, who would purify themselves, body and soul before beginning to write. Much thought would be put into each word and the result, besides being an object of calligraphic beauty, had also been enhanced with the sanctity of the kavanos, intentions, of the sofer. Many people in Eretz Yisroel (bnei Torah in particular and not exclusively in Israel) think nothing of the cost of mezuzahs for their homes. It is thus surprising that some people, who spend so much on vanities, should consider significant the difference in price between highly questionable mezuzos and those of unimpeachable kashrus. It reflects poorly on their entire outlook regarding the fulfillment of mitzvos.

Many people claim familiarity with the laws of safrus and examine their own mezuzahs when necessary. When I mentioned this to the sofer he noted that occasionally hairline cracks develop, separating part of letters. These points are almost undetectable to a person with an untried eye. (Additionally, many seemingly minor "deformities" in the forms of letters that affect their halachic status will easily be overlooked.) A number of poskim, halachic authorities, have confirmed this to me in their advice: Even mezuzahs that were initially kosher should be submitted to an expert sofer (examiner) for examination.

Even the greatest poskim would not rely on their own eyes. While the sofer (examiner) refers difficult questions to the posek, the posek in turn consults the sofer (examiner) for inspection of his own tefillin and mezuzahs. Aside from the possibility of deterioration with age, the inspection of parshios can also uncover initial errors, hitherto undiscovered. (Hence, making the first examination the most crucial and making it not worthwhile putting off the examination of tefillin for too many years even though by the strict letter of the law, in most cases, one is not obligated to have his tefillin checked.) I heard a number of cases that clearly illustrate this point.

An elderly man had given his tefillin to be inspected- tefillin that had been inspected by experts in Europe and American at least a dozen times and in every case found to be perfect. This most recent inspection revealed that an entire word was missing!…. (Today computer checking is available which will almost certainly uncover the problem before the parchments would ever be inserted into the tefillin.)

Another anecdote illustrates this even more clearly: In Europe, visiting sofrim would periodically pass through towns examining tefillin, mezuzahs and Torah scrolls. In a larger city the local sofer, who had won a widespread reputation, was too busy to perform inspections invited an itinerant sofer to handle the task. After morning services an announcement was made informing all who wanted their tefillin checked to leave them on a specific table and to pay for the inspection fee when picking them up. The local sofer inadvertently left his own tefillin on the same table and the visiting sofer checked them among the rest and found them to be posul. The local sofer, an extremely pious individual, fell faint when he heard the verdict.

A number of sofrim have told me this anecdote, underscoring that even the most expert sofer submits his own tefillin and mezuzahs to another for inspection….

The Ramban, Nachmanidies, writes that the reason a positive commandment overrides a negative commandment when there is conflict between the two is because the positive commandment has the greater importance. Punishment for violating a negative commandment is of limited duration while failure to properly observe a positive commandment, such as tefillin and mezuzah, can cost a person part of his eternal reward. Furthermore, one can repent the violation of any commandment but even repentance cannot make up for that which has not been done. That is, the sin of neglecting to perform a positive commandment may be forgiven but with regard to the lapsed observance itself it is written: "The crooked cannot be rendered straight and the missing cannot be made up". (Koheles 1:5)

In addition, there are extensive traditions regarding the special protection a mezuzah provides for the home. The name, Sh-ddai, is inscribed on the exterior of the mezuzah scroll- one reason is that it is written the initial letters of Shomer Dalsos Yisroel, Guardian of the doors of Israel. Also the word mezuzahs has the same letters as Zaz Maves- remove death, indicating that the mezuzah protects against calamity…whenever recurrent tragedy occurs in a house, our sages have prescribed a careful inspection of its mezuzahs.

The same applies to tefillin. The Talmud states that one who fails to keep the mitzvah of tefillin is called a "Sinner of Israel with his body" and this is even true of one who, through neglect, uses tefillin that are posul. In addition, he recites a blessing in vain each time he puts on these tefillin- in itself a serious transgression.

The significance of these matters should be obvious to every observant Jew but must be reiterated in the context of ascertaining the kashrus of such ritual items.

The best way to be certain of having the most perfect possible mezuzahs and tefillin is to seek out a sofer of impeccable reputation. This approach can be difficult outside of Israel where there are few, practicing sofrim. The best alternative is to buy these objects from an expert dealer, preferable one recommended by a trusted rabbi….

Rabbi Askotzky takes it from here…
In addition to these so called mezuzahs, tefillin of the same quality are being sold, both in stores and online. The price is usually the giveaway. As much as I don't like to attach a price to tefillin or mezuzahs as a guide for measuring quality and kashrus, I can comfortably say that the least one could expect to pay, retail, for the most basic, quality tefillin (which may not last many years, likely are fitted with poor quality (split hide) straps and are minimally kosher would be approximately $200. Even if one were to purchase such tefillin, they must be bought from an expert and impeccable source. There can be so many problems with such tefillin requiring very careful assembly and examination of the batim, leather housing and handwriting as a significant % will be invalid and must be rooted out. It is most worthwhile to invest an additional $100 to be assured of at least a decent quality and basic kosher pair of tefillin. Bear in mind that tefillin should be a one time investment and costs a fraction of a penny per day of use throughout one's lifetime!

Please read the following excerpts from my book, Tefillin and Mezuzos regarding the internet:

"The popularity and feasibility of the internet opens STaM (Scrolls, tefillin and mezuzahs) to the world Jewish market. The consumer now has easy access to sofrim and retailers in different countries. It also creates prime breeding ground for fraud. One must be extra careful when purchasing STaM on-line. Be certain to follow the guidelines. There are reliable sofrim who are on-line and there are also sites which offer STaM of very questionable kashrus. It is recommended to purchase STaM from knowledgeable sources, which may exclude "virtual" bookstores and Judaica shops. Often the very low price of tefillin is a give away. On the other hand tefillin can sometimes be for sale at outrageous prices. A responsible site will suggest that you call the sofer or or post a catalog providing detailed information about itself and its products, samples, recommendations from well known rabbis and a telephone number and address so it can be contacted or visited."

In addition, it is known that Jews for J and messianics are producing Torahs, tefillin and mezuzahs and they are certainly invalid.

More recently it has come to light that unscrupulous individuals are producing invalid tefillin straps and selling them to unsuspecting suppliers. Even the most expert can't differentiate between these and kosher ones. They are made in Israel by cheap foreign labor and are not made according to halachah, Jewish law. Pious looking individuals are selling these bogus straps as those made by respected makers. This is another reason to purchase hand made ones as these are tagged with a special tag by the supervising rabbi once they are ready to market. The machine made straps have no particular, identifying marks and are not tagged or stamped and therefore are much more easily susceptible to forgery.

For answers to: When we're shopping for a new Torah, tefillin, mezuzah or megillah, what should we be looking for? What do we ask? What do we insist on? How do we choose a reliable source? And answers to myriad other questions and a treasure trove of pratical information and Jewish law please check out our new book, Tefillin and Mezuzos: A sofer shows you how to choose, maintain and understand your tefillin, mezuzah and Torah scrolls.